Lake Baikal


LAKE BAIKAL is in a “rift valley”, created by the Baikal Rift Zone, where the earth’s crust is slowly pulling apart.  At 636km long and 79km wide, Lake Baikal has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake and is the deepest lake in the world at 5,387ft.  The bottom of the lake is 3,893ft below sea level, but below this lies some &km of sediment, placing the “rift floor” some 8-11km below the surface ——– the deepest Continental rift on earth.

It is also among the clearest of all lakes, and thought to be the world’s oldest lake at 25million years.  It contains more water than all the Great Lakes combined.  Like Lake Tanganyika, Lake Baikal was formed as an ancient rift valley, having the typical long crescent shape.  In geological terms, the rift is young and active– it widens about 2cm per year.  The “fault zone” is also “seismically active”  —— there are hot springs in the area and notable earthquakes every few years.

Frozen Lake Baikal

The lake is divided into 3 basins :  North, Central and South, with depths of about 3,000ft, 5,200ft and 4,600ft respectively.    Fault-controlled accommodation zones, rising to depths of about 980ft, separate the basins.  The North and Central basins are separated by the ACADEMICIAN RIDGE, while the area around the SELENGA DELTA and the BUGULDEIKA SADDLE separates the Central and South basins.  The lake drains into the ANGARA tributary of the YENISEI.  Notable landforms include CAPE RYTY on Baikal’s northwest coast.

Zabaikalski National Park, Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia

Baikal’s age is estimated at 25-30million years, making it one of the most “ancient lakes in geological history”.  It is unique among large, high-altitude lakes, in that its sediments have not been “scoured” by overriding continental ice sheets.  Russian, US and Japanese co-operative studies of deep drilling core sediments in the 1990s provide a detailed record of climatic variation over 6.7million years.  Longer and deeper sediment cores are expected in the near future.  Lake Baikal is the “only confined freshwater lake” in which direct and indirect evidence of gas hydrates exist.


The lake is completely surrounded by mountains.  The BAIKAL MOUNTAINS on the north shore and the TAIGA are technically protected as a National Park.  It contains 27 islands —- the largest, OLKHON, is 72km and is the 3rd-largest “lake-bound” island in the world.  Despite its great depth, the lake’s waters are well-mixed and well-oxygenated throughout the water column, compared to the “stratification” that occurs in such bodies of water, such as Lake Tanganyika and the Black Sea.


Lake Baikal is rich in biodiversity.  It hosts more than a 1,000 species of plants and 2,500 species of animals based on current knowledge, but the actual figures, for both groups, are believed to be significantly higher.  More than 80% of the animals are endemic (found only at Lake Baikal).  The Baikal Seal or NERPA is found throughout Lake Baikal.  It is one of only three entirely freshwater seal populations in the world, the other two being sub-species of “ringed seal”.  The watershed of Lake Baikal has numerous flora species represented.  The “marsh thistle” is found here at the eastern limit of its geographic range.  In total there are fewer than 60 native fish species in the lake, but more than half of these are endemic.  Baikal oil-fish, deep water Baikal sculpins are entirely restricted to the lake basin.  The oil-fish (GOLOMYANKAS) are long-finned, translucent fish that typically live in open water in depths of 330-1,640ft.  They are the primary prey of the Baikal seal and represent the largest “fish biomass” in the lake.  The most important local species for fisheries is the OMUL, an endemic white fish.  It is caught, smoked and then sold widely in markets around the lake.  The Baikal black grayling, Baikal white grayling and the Baikal sturgeon are other important species with commercial value.  They are also endemic to the Lake Baikal basin.


The lake hosts rich endemic fauna of invertebrates.  Among the most diverse invertebrates groups are the TURBELLAARIAN, freshwater snails and amphipod crustaceans.   As of 2006, almost 150 freshwater snails are known from Lake Baikal, including 117 endemic species.  All endemics have been recorded between 66-98ft, but the majority mainly live at shallower depths.

The Baikal area has a long list of human habitation.  An early known tribe in the area was the KURYKANS, forefathers of 2 ethnic groups :  the BURYATS and the YAKUTS.  The Trans-Siberian Railway was built between 1896 and 1902.  Construction of the scenic railway, around the south western end of Lake Baikal, required 200 bridges and 33 tunnels.  Until its completion, a train-ferry transported rail-cars across the lake from Port Baikal to Mysovaya for a number of years.  The lake came the site of  a minor engagement between the Czechoslovak Legion and the Red Army in 1918.  At times, during “winter freezes”, the lake could be crossed on foot —– though at risk of frostbite and deadly hypothermia from the cold wind, moving unobstructed, across flat expanses of ice.  Beginning in 1956, the impounding of the IRKUTSK DAM on the Angara River raised the level of the lake by 4-6ft.  As a railway was built, a large hydro-geographical expedition, headed by F. K. Drizhenko, produced the 1st detailed contour map of the lake bed.

Olkhon Island

The lake, nicknamed THE PEARL OF SIBERIA and the GREAT BLUE EYE OF SIBERIA, drew investors from the tourist industry as energy revenues sparked an “economic boom”.  Victor Grigorov’s GRAND BAIKAL in Irkutsk, is one of the investors who planned to build 3 hotels and thus creating 570 jobs.  In 2007, the Russian Government declared the Baikal region a “special economic zone”.

A popular resort in LISTVYANKA is home to the 7-storey HOTEL MAYAK.  At the northern part of the lake, BAIKALPLAN ( a German NGO) built, together with Russians in 2009, the FROLIKHA Adventure Coastline Track, a 100-km-long long-distance trail as example for a sustainable development of the region.  Lake Baikal was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Hotel Mayak

Baikal, the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, curves for nearly 400miles through south-eastern Siberia, north of the Mongolian border.  It lies in a “cleft”, where Asia is literally splitting apart, the beginnings of a FUTURE OCEAN.  Geologists say Baikal today, shows what the “seaboards” of North America, Africa and Europe looked like as they began to separate millions of years ago.

More than  5,000ft deep, at its most profound, with another 4-mile-thick layer of sediment further down, the lake’s cold, oxygen-rich waters teem with “bizarre” life forms.  One of those, the seals’ favourite food, —– the GOLOMYANKA, a pink, partly transparent fish that gives birth to “live young”.
Surrounded by mile-high snow-capped mountains, lake Baikal still offers vistas of unmatched beauty.  The mountains are still a haven for wild animals and the small villages are still outposts of tranquillity and self-reliance in the remote Siberian TAIGA (as the forest is called).
There are the ALPS, the CAUCASUS, the BLACK SEA ………….. but there’s nothing like LAKE BAIKAL.  Endless forests all around.  Then you see blue, blue, blue.  It is like a coast-less entity.  It’s all blue and it’s all beautiful  What is particular is its sudden change of mood.  It could be blue, quiet and calm one moment and then immediately the wind rises and huge waves appear.  It is like an “old man mumbling”.
——— Steve Nettleton.

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